The Sublime’s Effects in Gothic Fiction
With ghosts, spacious castles, and fainting heroes, Gothic fiction conveys both thrill and intrigue. Gothic literature is a combination of horror fiction and Romantic thought; Romantic thought encompasses awe toward nature. Essentially, Romanticism is a reaction against the Enlightenment, a time that revolutionized scientific thought, and emphasizes emotional response and intuition over clinical knowledge. Romantic literature elicits personal pleasure from natural beauty, and Gothic fiction takes this aesthetic reaction and subverts it by creating delight and confusion from terror. This use of terror is called the sublime, which is an important tool in these narratives. Examples of Gothic literature range from dark romances to supernatural mysteries.
In Gothic novels, no matter the setting or villain, the sublime exists as a different experience than appreciating natural beauty. In fact, this concept deals with how authors capture their characters’ trauma and fear. It is important to look at the sublime in the lens of both the characters’ experiences and the real world contexts that influence them.
Beyond identifying the sublime, a crucial part of looking at this technique is seeing how the fears present in Gothic literature factor into real life concerns, such as the enforced roles and restrictions faced by women. The use of terror illuminates how the marginalized, once given a voice, cope with their harrowing predicaments, and reading about these struggles helps foster comprehension and empathy.
Defining the Sublime
What separates experiencing the sublime from experiencing beauty is the disruption of harmony. As stated above, it shows elements of Romantic reactions to human experience while utilizing fear as well. According to Edmund Burke, the imagination experiences both thrill and fear through what is “dark, uncertain, and confused.” 1 In setting the sublime apart from beauty, the sublime creates more than a positive, appreciative response to an aesthetic, such as a beautiful painting or sunlit meadow. The sublime stems from potent awe and terror that stresses someone’s limits, surpassing all other responses and overloading the recipient in both their revulsion and fascination.
In regards to the Romantic view of the environment, the sublime can occur when natural grandeur overwhelms an individual to the point of causing fright or a feeling of helpless insignificance. Overall, approaching the sublime occurs when a sight or experience is “awesome” or ” awful” in the old meaning of both words: characterized by or inspiring awe, and awe is an emotion containing fear, wonder, and reverence. The sublime questions the stark dichotomy between pleasure and pain because a fear-invoking scene can also cause wonder, an odd sort of delight. In a contemporary sense, it could be viewed as watching a train wreck: horrifying, but captivating to the viewer.
Because of its potency and Burke’s gendered views, he viewed the Romantic or Gothic sublime as a more masculine and powerful experience than beauty, which he perceived as feminine, and therefore more fragile and superficial. However, Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer and avid women’s rights advocate, argued against this perspective and its depiction of women as inherently weak and passive. For Wollstonecraft, the sublime dealt with the self and its subjective views of society and spectacular natural scenery.
Interestingly enough, Ann Radcliffe, the English writer who pioneered the Gothic novel (as well as the “Female Gothic” novel, Gothic literature for women, by women), maintained that horror and terror exist as separate entities, and that terror, not horror, creates the sublime because, while horror is definite, terror provokes ambiguous emotions, which in turn “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” 2 Horror involves witnessing the monster, of seeing blood or a corpse, while terror burrows into an individual’s unclear psyche and entails multiple, conflicting emotions stirring at once.
Gender and Evoking the Sublime
Going off of Mary Wollstonecraft’s view of the sublime as a part of her relationship to society (and how 19th century Western culture treated women’s intelligence and education), the sublime, through overwrought sensory details, can reveal what scares the character based on real struggles. For women in Victorian England (1837-1901), the sublime is triggered through a fear of confinement and suppression based on societal expectations; an example of this fear appears in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre 3.
In the beginning, Jane experiences terror when her aunt locks her inside the red-room, the former chambers of her dead uncle. As her imprisonment lingers, the experience takes its toll on Jane, and she soon believes her uncle’s ghost, a patriarchal symbol, will rise and attack her. She states, “My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated; endurance broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort” (11).
Jane Eyre becomes enraptured in an experience that affects her on both a physical and emotional level, an experience that strains her, that challenges her and extends past the capacity of her imagination. The sublime creates hysteria, and the concept of “hysteria” derives from the archaic belief that cis women act in excess or have uncontrollable, irrational bouts of emotions when their uterus does not function properly. Considering the Victorian woman’s experience, as well as earlier ones (though published in the Victorian era, Bronte set the novel in the Georgian era) the red-room may be red for a variety of symbolic reasons: menstruation (Jane is ten at the novel’s beginning and will soon enter puberty); passion; torment; blood.
Furthermore, Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room stems from punishment for confronting her male cousin after he hits her and insults her because she is dependent on his family and because the books she reads are not her own. She suffers for rebelling, for educating herself and living in an environment where she does not possess her own independence, so the surreality of her break with reality emphasizes the terror of her experience as a girl approaching womanhood.
In Jane Eyre, this issue also manifests in the character of Bertha Mason, the wife of Jane’s love interest, who spends several years locked in an attic because of her mental instability. Because of society’s treatment of mental illness, especially in regards to Bertha’s gender and racial identity, Bertha becomes as trapped as Jane was at the start of the novel, and her ordeal culminates in a result that is both terrifying to witness but dazzling and gripping in its own terrible way: fire.
Frankenstein: Awe-Inspiring Feats and Standards of Beauty
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein 4 deals with many complex themes while invoking the sublime. She considered the novel her own monster, with herself as the creator. While many of her male contemporaries mainly worked with poetry and operated in exclusive chats, Mary Shelley wrote a complex novel at a young age.
The narrative deals with the impact of nature. In fact, Frankenstein challenges the aspect of nature itself as the titular character, Victor Frankenstein, researches both modern science and alchemy to defeat death. In terms of the environment, the Monster comes to life due to a violent storm. Before that, Victor speaks of feeling jubilation from a startling and intriguing natural event.
When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.
This scene not only shows the sublime, but foreshadows Victor’s ruination. Victor’s own accomplishment is an awe-inspiring feat; it is an action that incites inspiration and terror as the Monster becomes a strikingly intelligent living being, but suffers marginalization because he is the embodiment of the sublime and not beauty. The Monster is painful to look at, and therefore mistreated and accosted.
Victor becomes the modern Prometheus, the Titan who brought fire to humanity at a terrible cost. By mirroring the Titan’s fate, Victor performs a grand feat, fueled by knowledge and breaking boundaries, and suffers not only for his transgression, but for neglecting his grotesque creation, his child, for a superficial reason.
Though he initially seeks for his creation to be beautiful, the actual result elicits terror. Victor states, “No mortal could support the horror of that countenance.” When the living creature moves, it then “became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceive.” The situation, as miraculous and groundbreaking as it is, becomes Victor’s own personal hell. As his life unravels, the reader becomes the recipient of a sublime experience: as horrific as the downfall is to witness, the narrative propels the reader forward to the bleak and devastating conclusion.
One could also determine that this Gothic tragedy also displays elements of dissecting the fears of Victorian cis women, though the Monster’s creation and how people treat him have also become representations of brilliant but morally-questioned modern innovations (genetically modified food; cloning animals) and contemporary marginalization (issues of race, sexuality, transgender identity, disability, etc.).
Concerning the fears of Victorian cis women, Mary Shelley’s mother, the aforementioned Mary Wollstonecraft, died from a post-birth infection, and Shelley herself suffered from miscarriages and the deaths of infant children and dreamed of one of her babies returning to life. It is entirely possible that Frankenstein contains Shelley’s thoughts on both the wonder and trauma of childbirth, since Mary’s own birth caused her mother’s infection and death.
In the preface for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes, “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.” The Monster and his creation are not only representations of the sublime, but the novel itself, for it exists as both an entity of woe and happiness concerning the author’s past, present, and future misfortunes.
As an important part of Gothic works, the sublime helps readers uncover aspects of humanity. The commingling delight and terror deal with personal emotions and experiences for both the characters and the works’ authors, as well as the audience. It is essential to not only be able to define and find the sublime in Gothic literature, but to also determine the causes of fear in hopes that the reader can empathize with the complex, overwhelming struggles presented in various works. Though this is a 19th century concept, the pivotal issues presented in Gothic works such as Jane Eyre and Frankenstein reverberate in modern culture.
- Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I, Section VII. ↩
- Bruhm, Steven. Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. ↩
- Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print. ↩
- Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Project Gutenberg, 2 Mar. 2005. Web. 5 Dec. 2015. ↩
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